We must respect the difficulty and danger of the jobs of those who protect us and stop willfully blinding ourselves to the unpleasant realities around us. Let us defend, support, and celebrate our police and our military; without them, our world would be a far more perilous place.
This semester, I am happily exercising one of my coveted privileges as an English professor: to guide a class of eager undergraduates through the beautiful and heroic but dangerous and elegiac world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien takes his time developing his epic fantasy, allowing his readers to fall in love with the Shire, the pastoral home of the hobbits. Though perhaps a bit too bourgeois and self-satisfied in their creature comforts, the hobbits nevertheless lead a charmed life that allows them to take full enjoyment in what Tolkien, in his Prologue, tells us they most love: “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.”
The Shire is a safe haven protected from the pains and hazard of the wide world, a walled, edenic garden sheltered from the growing darkness of the Dark Lord Sauron. Though the hobbits do not know it, and though they feel no gratitude for it, their idyllic existence relies upon the vigilance and military prowess of the Rangers, descendants of the Men of the West who, under the leadership of Aragorn, the rightful king of Middle-earth, patrol the borders of the Shire and of the neighboring town of Bree: home of the inn of the Prancing Pony and its fat, jolly owner, Barliman Butterbur.
In Book II, Chapter II (“The Council of Elrond”), Aragorn, known to Barliman as Strider, a dark, suspicious, uncouth character whom he would happily drive out of his inn and his town, explains to Boromir (son of the Steward of Gondor) the vital role of the Rangers and how that role is perceived by the inhabitants of Bree and the Shire. Though it is true the men of Gondor have fought long and hard to protect Middle-earth from Sauron, the Rangers, too, have played their part in fighting off the various henchmen of the Enemy:
If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we [the Rangers] have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain [the Men of the West] were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. ‘Strider’ I am to one fat man [Barliman] who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.
Tolkien, like his friend C.S. Lewis, fought in World War I, and both were apologists for the medieval knight—including that most misunderstood of knights, the crusader—who dedicated his life to patrolling the perilous borders of civilization. Though neither was what we would call a “hawk,” both Tolkien and Lewis believed that civilians owed a debt of gratitude to knights and soldiers who risked their lives so that they could work their jobs, enjoy their families, and till their land in peace.
Tolkien, in particular, saw with prophetic insight how the Western world was growing increasingly thankless towards its own Rangers: its soldiers and its policemen, its sailors and its marines. Could he have seen to what degree the media and academy have taught people to demonize police and military men alike, Tolkien would have been aghast. How can we so cavalierly patronize, criticize, and denigrate the very officers who risk all to protect us from crime, violence, and unchecked aggression?
We have become the men of Bree and the hobbits of the Shire: forgetful of the sacrifices that have been made so that we can have the peace and security that we take for granted and the luxuries to which we feel entitled. As I meditated further on Tolkien’s portrait of the unappreciated, and often maligned, Ranger, my mind wandered back to two classic American films that embody with eerie precision the exact moment when our culture—not our jaded academic culture, but our usually optimistic popular one—allowed itself to turn against those who protect us.
The first film, one of my favorites, was directed by Edward Dmytryk and stars the great Humphrey Bogart as the tragic naval Captain Queeg. Grown paranoid from long years of fighting and suffering for his country, Queeg has a nervous breakdown; alas, rather than being helped by his officers, he is overthrown by them. The Caine Mutiny (1954) tells the story of that overthrow and how it leads to a trial in which the chief conspirators are faced with the prospect of court-martial.
Not wanting to see a miscarriage of justice, since Queeg did indeed break down and put his crew in danger, an idealistic lawyer played by José Ferrer comes up with a plan for getting the accused officers released. He puts Queeg in the witness-box and so handles him that he breaks down in front of the court. As a result, Queeg is discredited and humiliated, and the conspirators are released and exonerated.
But the film does not end there. At the celebration that follows the trial, the lawyer, his tongue loosened by alcohol and his own sense of guilt for humiliating a war hero, turns against Mr. Keefer and Willie (the two lead conspirators) and defends Queeg in words reminiscent of Aragorn’s celebration of the Rangers:
You know something, when I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.
When the conspirators try to defend themselves, the lawyer reminds them that Queeg had approached them for help, but they had arrogantly turned him down: “You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon [when Queeg’s paranoia put the ship in danger, provoking the mutiny]?”
The point of the film is clear, demonstrating a sharp moral clarity that combines justice with mercy and that has the discernment to locate the real source of guilt. Yes, Queeg had to be taken down lest the officers be condemned. The ship had been in danger and Queeg needed to be relieved from command. But that does not erase the deeper guilt of the conspirators whose lack of gratitude for Queeg’s service and sacrifice and sense of their own entitlement and superiority drove the unappreciated Captain to destruction.
Fast forward four decades to the slickly entertaining A Few Good Men (1992), which, whatever the intentions of writer Aaron Sorkin and director Rob Reiner might have been, plays like a remake of The Caine Mutiny—but with one culture-defining change. In this film, an incompetent marine named Santiago is accidentally killed due to a tragic incident of military hazing gone bad, and the two marines responsible face court-martial.
This time around the idealistic lawyer is played by a young Tom Cruise who decides that the only way he can free the accused marines is to take down the harsh, militaristic colonel played by Jack Nicholson who ordered the code red (the hazing) that led to the death of Santiago. As in The Caine Mutiny, Cruise goads Nicholson into losing his cool and admitting that he did, in fact, order the code red that led to Santiago’s death.
What sets the latter movie apart from the former, however, is that in the latter, the speech that Jack Nicholson makes which exposes him as a villain is practically identical to the speeches José Ferrer and Aragorn make to defend Queeg and the Rangers. After telling the supposedly truth-seeking Cruise that he “can’t handle the truth,” Nicholson goes on to defend the unappreciated, and often maligned, role he plays in society:
Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?… I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me there. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punch line. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I’d prefer you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to.
By the time A Few Good Men hit movie screens, there had been no draft in America for nearly two decades. The first Gulf War had been waged and won just a few years earlier, but that was a “clean” war fought mostly from the air. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Cold War had ended. The world seemed safe for democracy, and Americans were feeling as complacent as hobbits and as self-satisfied as the men of Bree.
Rather than face head-on the cost of peace and security in a dangerous world, we grew content to live our lives with our eyes wide shut. Instead of expressing gratitude to those who patrolled our borders, we found it less taxing on our conscience to choose, every so often, a military or police scapegoat on which to unload our hatred, our fear, and our paranoia: hate rallies, as George Orwell so prophetically named them in 1984. How difficult and painful it is for fallen creatures to admit their need for help and protection and to be thankful for those who fulfill that need.
2017 promises to bring us a television remake of A Few Good Men. Though I’d like to believe this new version will give us more gratitude and less entitlement, I fear that the demonization of the colonel will be more intense and considerably more smug. For the last two-and-a-half decades have only made us more complacent and self-satisfied, quicker to blame those whom we hire to do the dirty work and slower to see our own prejudices, our own conformity, and our own priggish sensitivities.
Yes, we must hold our police and our military accountable, but we must also respect the difficulty and danger of their jobs and stop willfully blinding ourselves to the unpleasant realities around us. Let us defend, support, and celebrate our Rangers; without them, our world would be a far more perilous place.
This essay originally appeared here in December 2016.
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